What we can learn from pulp fiction

By P.J. Parrish

Now pay attention, kittens and bo’s, there’s a quiz at the end of this one.

I was an art major in college. This was before I figured out I couldn’t make a living at this. Unless I planned to teach, but I was scared of kids. (Not a good character trait in teachers). I was doing okay in art until I hit a class called Three Dimensional Design. I could draw and paint but I was terrible at this. Evidence of my ineptitude was my “final exam” sculpture, which I called Nude With A Paper Cup Head. So titled because I couldn’t get my figure’s face right so I just filled a Dixie cup with wet plaster and stuck it on top. I got a D.
I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t think outside the two-dimensional box. Finally, my instructor told me I had to stop seeing the world in POSITIVES and start seeing it in NEGATIVES. In other words, I was so hung up on adding things, I was missing the beauty of subtracting. “Learn how to leave things out,” he told me.
I ended up abandoning art for writing. But I think that little piece of advice must have lodged deep in my brain cells because it is something subconsciously I have always tried to apply to my fiction writing. Subconsciously I say because until recently, I hadn’t even thought about my art instructor and his advice. Maybe I am thinking about it now because of the book I am reading — “The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps.” I got it for Christmas but I keep it handy by the bedside, digesting it in small doses.
It’s a handsome book…a compiliation of the best crime stories from the “golden age” of pulp crime fiction — the 20s through the 40s. It’s about the size of the Manhattan phone book. And to be really honest, parts of it read about as well.
Many of these guys were dismissed as the hacks of their day, churning out their stories for cheaply printed magazines like “Black Mask” and “Dime Detective.” Yeah, they were lurid, the syntax cringe-worthy, the plots thin or nonsensical. But they tapped into a popular need for a new kind of human hero. The most memorable of the heroes became the prototypes for much of what we are seeing in our crime fiction today — lone wolves fighting for justice against all odds but always on their own different-drummer terms. Would we have Harry Bosch without the Continental Op? Jack Reacher without Simon Templar? Doubtful…
Some of my favorite “classic” crime writers wrote pulp. Like John D. MacDonald who churned out stories for “Black Mask” and “Dime Detective,” and Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. Even my seminal hero Georges Simenon (creator of inspector Maigret who was a partial inspiration for my own protag Louis Kincaid) couldn’t resist the lure of the lurid and wrote two nasty little noirs call “Dirty Snow” and “Tropic Moon.” 
To be sure, not all the stories in “Lizard” have aged well. The slang sounds vaguely silly now, the sexism and racism we can explain away as anachronistic attitudes. But the armature these writers created is still sturdy.

Especially in pure writing style. That is the biggest thing I am getting out of these stories, an appreciation for that streamlined locomotive style that propels these stories along their tracks. I read these stories now — discovering most of these writers for the first time — with a smile on my face and a Highlighter in hand. There are lessons to be learned for us all, and you can almost hear James M. Cain whispering: “I’m not going to dazzle you with my writing. I’m going to tell you a helluva story.”

These guys sure knew what to leave out. Let me give you one little passage from Paul Cain’s “One Two Three”:

I said: “Sure — we’ll both go.”
Gard didn’t go for that very big, but I told him that my having been such a pal of Healy’s made it all right.
We went.

Not: And then we left the apartment and got in my roadster and set out. We took Mulholland Drive out of the canyon and arrived just before dusk.
Just: We went.
How can you read that and not smile?
I heartily recommend the “Big Book of Pulps.” And speaking of art, check out some of the best pulp cover artists of the day at Rex Parker’s terrific vintage paperback blog Pop Sensation. 
And now, in honor of our pulp forefathers, I am offering up this little quiz of pulp slang for your amusement. Answers at the end. And don’t chance the chisel for a cheap bulge, bo. We Jake?
DEFINITIONS.
1. Ameche
2. Kicking the gong around
3. Wooden kimono
4. cheaters
5. Gasper
6. Hammer and saws
7. Orphan papers
8. Wikiup
9. Bangtails
10. Can-opener
TRANSLATIONS
11. I had been ranking the Loogan for an hour and could see he was a right gee. It was all silk so far.
12. I stared down at the stiff. The bim hadn’t been chilled off. Definitely a pro skirt who had pulled the Dutch act.
13. I got a croaker ribbed up to get the wire.
14. By the time we got to the drum the droppers had lammed off. Another trip for biscuits…

 Answers:
1. telephone
2. taking opium
3. coffin
4. sunglasses
5. cigarette
6. Police
7. Bad checks
8. Home
9. Horses
10. Safecracker
11. I had been watching the man with the gun for an hour and could tell he was an okay guy. Everything was cool so far.
12. I stared at the body. The woman hadn’t been murdered. She was definitely a prostitute who had committed suicide.
13. I have arranged for a doctor to get the information.

14. By the time we got to the speakeasy, the hired killers had left. Just another trip for nothing…
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What Is Your Spark?

“He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experience, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art… And when the process is over, when the…novel is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did not do it on earth.”  — E.M. Forster
By P.J. Parrish

Where does it come from?

I’m talking about that original impulse, that first bud of creativity that eventually grows into a book. Can you remember? What was it that tickled your brain and set the synapses glowing? What the very first moment when you knew you were onto something?

I’m not talking about inspiration or muses or the “need” to write. I’m trying to focus way way down to that little thing that got you going on whatever it is you are now working so hard to bring to life. What was the spark?

Normally I don’t think much about stuff from the ether like this. Especially since we here at The Kill Zone tend to focus on practical stuff like building credible characters and sturdy plot structures. But sometimes it’s fun — and maybe even a little instructive — to turn the microscope to its finest setting and examine the beginnings of life.

Every writer starts a novel from a different impulse. Some start with a situation, many by asking “what if?” Many writers are character-led.  Often you can trace it back to something as small as an overheard conversation. Or an old man standing a corner glimpsed as you pass by in your car. It can be a line from a half-forgotten poem or the smell of dime store lipstick.

Sometimes that first impulse is too weak to sustain a novel. Sometimes that clot of embryonic cells never quite grows into a character. But sometimes, when you dip a bucket into the subconscious you draw up something special.

I got to thinking about this today because I was trolling the internet boning up on the history of the detective novel. I am going to be on a panel at the Edgar Symposium tomorrow that focuses on the future of the detective novel. And because I didn’t want my fellow panelists to wipe the floor with me I was, I admit, doing a little brushing up on my genre history.

That’s why I happened upon a lecture P.D. James gave in 1997 called Murder and Mystery: The Craft of the Detective Story. (Click here to read it). I’m a huge James fan; she and Georges Simenon were my guiding lights when I was trying to learn how to write detective novels. Jules Maigret and Adam Dalgliesh…those are the guys I’d want on the case when there’s a body on the slab.

So you can imagine how cool it was to read this paper of hers. It’s a great survey of the detective genre. But what I found really fascinating was the part where she talked about how she got her ideas. For James, it always starts with the setting.

I was gobsmacked when I read that. Because that’s what always gets me going. I can’t see a story until I can see the setting. Our books move between Michigan and Florida. Our settings have been, variously, an isolated island in the gulf, an abandoned insane asylum, an old family farm, a cattle pen overgrown with weeds, and an Everglades swamp way down south where the bottom of the state spreads out into the straits like a tattered flag.

Sometimes I almost feel like one of those weird psychics who claim they can see the place of death. When we are starting a new book, I can’t always tell you exactly where we are. But I can sort of feel it. And eventually the place materializes on the page, sort of like an old Polaroid.

Like right now, we working on a new Louis book that takes him back to Michigan. That’s all we knew when we started, that he had to go home. But where? Kelly insisted it had to be the Upper Peninsula (she went to college up there) and we eventually decided to take Louis as far north as we could — way up to the Keweenaw Peninsula, that strange spit of land that extends out into Lake Superior like a crooked finger pointing the way toward the Canadian wilderness. End of earth sort of idea.

But still, things weren’t gelling. There was a spark but it wasn’t catching. Then I saw a photograph someone had taken of a small abandoned cemetery. Its crumbling headstones are obscured by dense carpets of clover. It’s in the middle of nowhere. But it once the middle of somewhere — a lively town where the copper miners lived and worked in the 1800s.

P.D. James said that once she found her setting all she then had to do was begin talking to its inhabitants. Thus came her characters. So it has happened with us. We’re only ten chapters into this new book so we’re still meeting the natives, still learning their histories, still trying to develop an ear for their odd Yooper accents. (it’s somewhere between the nasal tones of Detroit and the lilt of Canada with some Finnish thrown in).

In a bit of synchronicity, I am the editor of the Edgar annual this year and months ago we decided on our theme — the sense of place in the crime novel. The essays are great — Lawrence Block on New York City, Peter Lovesey on Bath England, William Kent Kreuger on northern Minnesota, Cara Black on Paris — each writer talking about how place colors their stories.

Even as I read them it didn’t really occur to me how important setting was to me as a writer. But it is the thing from which everything else comes. If I don’t know where I am I can’t begin to tell you where my story is going. I need to know my place. It is my first spark.

What is yours?

p.s. Forgive me if I don’t respond right away but I am en route to NYC today. Will catch up when I get into Newark Airport. There’s wifi on the bus! 

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